This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.
Chez Billy Sudis cozier and Le Diplomate livelier, but whenever I crave French comfort food, the two-story Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown wins my reservation. Haven’t dropped by in a while? Ever? Here’s what you’re missing: plump snails cloaked in a sauce made verdant with parsley and basil, braised veal cheeks atop cream-sauced seashell pasta, an ile flottante to float your boat (and satisfy your sweet tooth). Swiss native George Vetsch took over the kitchen in spring 2014 and refined the menu, which means thicker slices of liver and vegetables that go beyond green beans to tell the time of year. Fillips transform the familiar to the fresh, as when sauteed trout takes on a salad of julienned onion and apple, by turns sharp and sweet. Upstairs is a wine bar with live music twice a week; the ground floor includes a reproduction of Gustave Caillebotte’s dreamy “Paris Street; Rainy Day” painting — and tables as crammed as economy class. Lepic, which turned 20 this year, isn’t perfect. But it’s a respite from the noise of the new, new, new on the scene.
This review was published in The Washington Post Magazine on July 19, 2015.
Struck recently by NRF — New Restaurant Fatigue — I hopped off the merry-go-round of young establishments and landed in a sliver of a bistro that turned 20 this spring.
My reunion with Bistrot Lepic & Wine Bar in Georgetown reminded me why snails baked in garlic butter and floating island are icons right up there with Catherine Deneuve, and more significantly, what a fine chef Washington has in Swiss native George Vetsch, 56. His résumé has taken him all over town ( C.F. Folks, Oval Room, the late Etrusco), and while I wouldn’t be surprised if he packs in a few more jobs before hanging up his apron for good, I’m tickled that he’s stirring the pot these days at Lepic, which brought him on board a year ago in April.
Easier to reserve than Le Diplomate on 14th Street NW, more varied than Chez Billy Sud near the C&O Canal and friendlier than Montmartre on the Hill, Bistrot Lepic attracts a mature clientele of Francophiles, socialites and diplomats past and present. (Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry have both supped here.) Lepic’s wine bar, open seven nights a week until midnight, is one floor up and of a different character. Each retreat counts singular charms. The ground floor comes with a plat du jour (Monday through Thursday) for $20, and a 20 percent discount on Monday night carry-out orders; upstairs calls to jazz fans with live music on Monday and Wednesday, “appeteasers” and some hits from the dining room, potato-tiled salmon with baby spinach included.
If you’ve never been to Lepic, its name a nod to a street in the 18th arrondissement in Paris, the menu opens with a collection of signatures that explain the restaurant’s longevity. Take those snails: tender, meaty and draped in a grass-green sauce of parsley and basil thickened with almond flour. (You’ve been warned: Ordering the appetizer means overeating bread with it.) Or kidneys accented in classic fashion, with Dijon mustard sauce. Risotto freckled with citrus zest and dotted with grilled shrimp might not sing the way the combination used to (the seafood smacked of lighter fluid one dinner), but we all have off days now and then, n’est-ce pas?
In most cases, Vetsch has not only smoothed out the wrinkles of dishes he inherited, he’s refined them and made them more attractive. Before his arrival, the kitchen served (previously) frozen lamb T-bone. Vetsch replaced it with fresh rack of Colorado lamb. The meat, fabulous with hints of honey, ginger and North African spices, has strong competition in its sidekicks, dauphine potatoes and ruddy, intense eggplant flan. Liver is sliced thicker than before, which lets its meatiness come through; sherry vinegar, capers and olives then work their magic in a sauce for the substantial main course. Before Vetsch, string beans were served year-round. These days, all the vegetables more or less tell the time of year. The chef says his mission is to “keep it interesting.”
That he does. Golden sauteed trout is arranged just so with a salad of julienned onion and apple that’s by turns sweet and sharp, soft and crisp. Keeping the elegant slaw together is house-made mayonnaise. Beige never tasted so good. Crisp herbed chicken alongside saffron-colored, currant-speckled basmati rice is an enticement fueled by a little pitcher of liquefied lemon grass, Thai chilies and more.
Vetsch knows to leave what’s good alone, too. Lepic’s braised veal cheeks, set on cream-sauced seashell pasta and lightened with fresh basil, is the same recipe that has drawn me to the bistro seemingly forever.
I never end a meal at Lepic without the very French ile flottante, whose towering island of meringue, encrusted with slivered almonds, floats on a pool of vanilla custard sauce. A richer end is the warm and satiny chocolate tart.
These and other plates are delivered by a brisk staff that you might recall from visits to Paris, except the Washington crew cracks more smiles.
My mash note to Lepic comes with a caveat. The 48-seat restaurant is not designed for lingering, at least not if you’re the average American. The tables are packed so close together, you find yourself playing footsie with strangers and bumping shoulders with the wall. Diplomats might call the dining room “cozy.” But “claustrophobic” is a more accurate description. Lepic added sound-absorbing panels to its ceiling some years back. It should now consider removing a table or two to give diners more elbow room.
The dim wine bar has a similar problem: lounge chairs so low you sense they were designed for Munchkins and tables without enough real estate for orders bigger than several plates. (The bread basket nestles in a pull-out drawer.) Two out of seven nights at least, live music proves a pleasant distraction.
Downstairs, consolation comes by way of local artist Izette Folger, whose changing paintings complement a reproduction of “Paris Street; Rainy Day” by impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte that has drawn eyes to the rear wall since founding chef Bruno Fortin opened the place in 1995.
A decade ago, Fortin acquired a business partner, former Cafe Milano manager Cyrille Brenac. The men are also co-owners of La Piquette, a younger draw near Washington National Cathedral. Together with chef Vetsch, the trio at Lepic demonstrate the relevance of the old guard — and a welcome respite, however fleeting, from the untested.
Location: 1736 Wisconsin Ave. NW.202-333-0111.www.bistrotlepic.com.
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Wine bar open 5:30 p.m. to midnight daily.
Prices: Lunch appetizers $7 to $19, main courses $16 to $32; dinner appetizers$8 to $19, main courses $18 to $32.
Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.
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